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10 houses you read about in novels

Famous writers' homes that inspired their most popular novels

10-case-scrittori-famosi
Damian Entwistle via Flickr

How many times did you try to picture the sceneries evoked by the pages of a book you were reading? No matter if they are real or invented places: literary geography is first of all a map of the soul, of the person who is writing and of their own memories. The houses of great authors do not simply witness their presences, they also embody their human and poetic growth. Characters, dreams and agonies were born inside those walls. They spread out around the world, given to the imagination of readers so that they could make them their own, ripping them off who initially conceived them. However, literature – just like life- leaves a mark on things. Perhaps light, faded but still indelible. This is why you can still find Joyce around the streets of his loved-hated Dublin or breathe in the smell of lavender like Virginia Woolf in the moor.

Houses look like who lives in them: they easily acquire their habits and flaws but simultaneously mould one’s character and mood. A gloomy and opulent architecture, infused with past, will certainly inspire twisted thoughts. While a modest but lively and sunny house will leave your mind free to play. We selected ten houses, spanning from the United Kingdom (with the help of The Guardian) to Latin America. Ten worlds on the edge between reality and fiction, where famous writers lived and conceived some of their mostly known masterpieces. Ten ways of reliving together the immortal stories that still move us, through the locations that inspired them.

 

Jane Austen - Godmersham Park, Kent (United Kingdom)

Daughter of a modest Anglican shepherd, Jane Austen certainly didn’t live in luxury. At least until her brother Edward, adopted by a rich couple of relatives without kids, inherited two residences in Godmersham and Chawton. The first monumental, elegant and Italian-style residence, overflowing with staff, regularly hosted balls and elite events. The second, less majestic but likewise charming, was the typical country house of the snob British aristocracy. Here, the writer personally experienced the splendours and privileges of that world she later wrote about with much perspicacity. As she once wrote to her sister Cassandra, she even got to the point of convincing herself that was the only place one can truly be happy. 

 

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Charlotte Brontë - Norton Conyers, Yorkshire (United Kingdom)

Just like Jane Austen, the older of the Brontë sisters, daughter of a parish priest, also entered the aristocracy world from the back door. She used to be an instructor, job that once brought her in Norton Conyers, Yorkshire, in 1836. The imposing, picturesque and simultaneously gloomy residence soon appears in the pages of Jane Eyre, under the name of Thornfield Hall. Apparently, it is the right place to lock up a crazy wife. The novel does not omit a single detail: the hidden stairs behind the gallery on the first floor are exactly the same. Even the wild baronet who used them for his night excursions did not go unnoticed. The author takes inspiration from him to outline the character of the Byronic, controversial Rochester, in love with Jane but bound to his first (crazy) wife on the third floor. 

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Virginia Woolf - Talland House, Cornwall (United Kingdom)

An enchanted location wrapped around green grass and caressed by the sea breeze. We are on the top of a gentle slope and we can see a lighthouse on the horizon. Here, Virginia used to spend the summer months as kid with her large family and friends. She had a happy childhood, surrounded by nature and in an idyllic atmosphere before the cold hand of fate took her mother and two brothers in a couple of years. In To the Lighthouse, the author ideally goes back to Talland House in Cornwall. It’s a delicate and painful journey through memories of that mystified place where her beloved ghosts are brought back to life. 

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Agatha Christie - Lawn Road flats, Hampstead, London (United Kingdom)

The countryside leaves its place to the city, which completely changes after WWII. Here is where Agatha Christie moved in the 1940s, choosing her house in a freshly built building, symbol of the modernist utopia. With its bold geometries and never-ending taping windows, the building witnessed urban metamorphosis and ended up influencing the setting of novels. For example, let’s think about the modern and light house in Endless Night. Rational and abstract architecture is able to hide mysteries and horrors, even creepier when disguised behind a rigorous appearance. Bringing order back and controlling chaos is the same old aim of an investigation. The same order the queen of thrillers could admire every day from her balcony. 

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Marcel Proust - 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris (France)

After all these women, it’s time for a man. To discover his world, we leave the United Kingdom and we fly to Paris, in Boulevard Haussmann. Here, the city reveals its most modern spirit and Proust decides to entrench in the past, closing up to the new to bring his masterpiece to life. He didn’t particularly like the neighbourhood; he hated its colours and noise, but he couldn’t live in a place his dead mother never knew. So, he moved to n. 102 and brought that apartment back in time. He sealed doors and windows, isolated his bedroom with cork, hid the view with heavy velvet curtains and filled the room with bulky old furniture. His house became a nostalgic, dark but reassuring treasure chest, a place of the soul, without the fear of the future. The ideal shelter to search for lost time. 

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Ernest Hemingway - Finca La Vigia, Havana (Cuba)

A different, airy and sunny atmosphere can be felt in Finca La Vigia. This is the Cuban estate where Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his most significant books, such as For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea. The American writer discovered Cuba randomly in 1928, while passing through Havana with his family. It was love at first sight. What particularly charmed him was marlin deep-sea fishing, an activity he tried first-hand, becoming friend with several mariners and local fishermen. For them, his doors were always open and their talks (always with rum on the side) used to last until late at night. The protagonist of The Old Man and The Sea was actually inspired by one of these veterans. 

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Childhood home, Aracataca (Colombia)

Let’s stay in Latin American to visit Aracataca, a picturesque Colombian village later known as Macondo in Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. We are in the Magdalena district, under the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, amongst the banana plantations where United Fruit settled down in the 1920s. The scenography and events are the same of the novel. Marquez was born here, on this humble, unknown and wild land. He absorbed its myths and legends, transforming them into an immortal epic. His tiny and fairy house – now a museum – is still there with its flower garden. Inside those walls, the writer learned how to daydream, moulding his fantasy world in the image of this timeless reality. 

 

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Thomas Mann - Buddenbrookhaus, Lübeck (Germany)

Welcome to Lübeck, the city of Buddenbrook. Thomas Mann was born in this medieval village, made of crooked streets and sharp spires. He was the son of a wealthy family that lived in a magnificent rococo building. This residence was home to countless dramas and rituals, a sumptuous frame of Thomas’ destiny. Later on, it became the Buddenbrooks’ home, the place that symbolises the essence and decadence of European bourgeoisie. All the characters in the novel recall real people. The palace rooms, accurately described, and its related traditions and stories flow into the writing. By exposing his own world, the author came to terms with himself starting from that golden haven, but going through a thousand shadows and tensions.

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James Joyce - No. 15 Usher's Island, Dublin (Ireland)

James Joyce used to hate Dublin. However, he was obsessed with it at the same time. So much that he claimed that if one day the city was destroyed, one could rebuild it through his novels. Detailed descriptions of locations and streets are always present in Joyce’s books. One house particularly stands out, deserving a ‘tribute’ in The Dead, Dubliners’ most famous story. It’s Usher’s Island residence, a “dark and bare” Georgian building on the riverside, where James’ uncles used to live. Surely, one of the parties held behind that red façade inspired the main dinner of the story, an elite event that became a meeting point of lives and memories, obsessions and restlessness. The house was later abandoned and it was falling to pieces until one of Joyce’s fans decided to renovate it. It was the accurate descriptions in the books that guided the works. 

 

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Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa - Villa Lampedusa, Palermo (Italy)

The last stop of this extraordinary journey is in Italy. Here, a few steps from the Sicilian sea, we meet Tomasi di Lampedusa, in a sumptuous and decadent atmosphere. He took inspiration from his family palace for the setting of The Leopard, his most famous novel.  We are in Villa Lampedusa, in San Lorenzo Colli (just outside Palermo), the plain where local aristocracy would build their out-of-town residences in the 1700s. The majestic building, with its elite events and richness, is the starting point for the royal Palazzo Salina in the novel, a temple of wealth and privilege, impenetrable to history disasters. Today, the external walls are the only ones keeping the house alive, but the charm remains untouched. 

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by Elisa Zagaria / 31 August 2017

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